The Gamecocks’ 2014 season hung suspended in the balance in nearly half their games. Six, to put it precisely. Though a 42-35 loss at Auburn was no doubt tight, South Carolina was a huge underdog and a 52-28 loss to Texas A&M in the opener and a 35-17 loss at Clemson were never truly in question. Likewise, South Carolina's victories over Furman (41-10), South Alabama (37-12) and at Vanderbilt (48-34) were the same on the positive side of the ledger. A 33-23 win against East Carolina the second game of the season fits in the same mold.
IF ONLY (Missouri, Kentucky, Tennessee)
If South Carolina had held on to fourth quarter leads at home against Missouri (21-20 loss) and Tennessee (45-42 loss in overtime) and at Kentucky (45-38 loss), then the Gamecocks would have taken the SEC East for the second time in program history as well as the second time under head coach Steve Spurrier. Certainly, the Gamecocks had their chances and likely should have won all three with double digit fourth quarter leads (20-7 against Mizzou, 38-24 at Kentucky and 42-28 against the Vols) in each contest. It just didn’t work out.
ON THE BRIGHT SIDE (Georgia, Florida, Miami)
The Gamecocks could have easily lost a 38-35 home game against Georgia earlier in the season as the game was in question until the final seconds ticked off the clock. The win in the Swamp (23-20 in overtime) was very improbable as the Gators possessed a 17-10 lead and were lining up to ice the game with a field goal before South Carolina blocked it, then later blocked a punt and marched down the field to tie up the score before winning the game in the extra session. Against Miami in the Independence Bowl, USC held on to a 24-21 lead in a back-and-forth game. Had the Gamecocks not won against the Bulldogs and Gators, then they would have finished 4-8 and there would have been no game with the Canes.
The margin for error in 2014 was that slim. It was a game of inches.
INTO THE FUTURE
Spurrier has spent a hunk of this offseason thus far trying to fix the Gamecocks defense, which under his watch - regardless of defensive coordinator - usually is one of the better units in the SEC. He hired 13-year NFL veteran and former Florida defensive coordinator Jon Hoke and South Carolina’s recruiting class features a slew of defensive linemen who could jump in and help right away.
There are several reasons, though, why expectations should be tempered despite the moves, for the 2015 season.
-The Gamecocks offense has question marks at quarterback, on the offensive line and at wide receiver outside of All-SEC selection Pharoh Cooper. Mike Davis rushed for nearly 2,000 yards the last two seasons and also departs, though Brandon Wilds and David Williams give South Carolina talent at tailback.
-Hoke will be implementing new ideas to coaches and players on defense. Many of the more talented players are new and it will take time for them to learn what Hoke is all about.
-The schedule, which is always tough, is especially brutal. Georgia, Tennessee and Missouri, arguably the top three teams in the SEC East in the preseason, are all on the road. From the SEC West, the Gamecocks play host to LSU, which they have not defeated since 1994 (their only win against the Tigers since joining the SEC) and travel to Texas A&M. Plus, three of the four non-conference games - North Carolina in Charlotte for the season opener, Clemson and UCF at home - are challenging. Even with improvement this year in key areas, the competition is such that having a winning season and getting to a bowl game would be a very good accomplishment.
All of those issues are natural for any program, but they are a reality heading into the offseason.
But as 2014 taught us, football, like life, is still a game of inches. South Carolina’s task is to fight for every one of them in 2015 and let the chips fall where they may.